Scrabble tiles spelling out REST

Photo: Sincerely Media | Unsplash

Six ways to help prevent journalist burnout

Create space for people to live their life at work and beyond

We’ve recently shared about some of the ways we put The Appeal’s value of “self- and community-care” into practice in our newsroom. Last month, we wrote about closing our newsroom twice a year in order to provide collective rest for our team, and in November, we shared our approach to and template for holding reflection sessions

This month, we’re sharing six more — essentially free! — ways to prioritize this value in your day-to-day operations. It’s hard enough to make time to take care of ourselves as hard-working adults. And none of us do our best work when we are not the best versions of ourselves.

So, here’s how we we create time to take care of ourselves and each other:

  1. #support-channel. Showing up for each other in good times and bad brings us together as a team and breaks down the idea that we need to put aside whatever is happening in our lives during work hours. This channel in slack creates a space for folks to opt in to sharing without pressure or obligation. We use our channel to:
    • Celebrate one another! All successes and life accomplishments matter — whether you met your goal of signing off work at 5 p.m. every day this week, finally signed up for that dance class you’ve been wanting to go to, or had a baby, we want to cheer you on.
    • Ask for support. Need someone to hold you accountable to finishing a story? Need to process a traumatic video you needed to watch for research? Dealing with family struggles, physical pain, or … burnout? We’re here for one another.

Note: Support is not the same thing as help — there’s a #help channel for that. We make a point to distinguish between support that makes people cared for and aid that helps people get work done. 

  1. User manuals. Everyone in our newsroom has different needs, different communication and work styles, and different things that are important to them. Most of the other workplaces we’ve been a part of don’t take the time to get to know their people, which makes folks feel unsupported and undervalued. 
    • Our user manuals allow our team to share things about themselves that we otherwise wouldn’t know. They include a wide-range of questions, including:
      • “How can we tell when you’re stressed?” and “How can we help when you’re stressed?” 
      • “What grinds your gears?” and “How do you like to receive feedback?”
      • “What are important aspects of your identity you’d like to share” and “how do you pronounce your name?”
    • We use a questionnaire in Airtable that everyone has access to, so if you want to get to know a new teammate or figure out how to have a hard conversation with someone, you can take a look at their user manual.
    • Here’s a simpler template to get you started.
  1. #ooo channel. If you want your staff members to take care of themselves, you have to give them the time to do just that. We take our #ooo channel on Slack very seriously—it is a supportive and judgment-free zone. 
    • Whether you’re grabbing lunch, going to the dentist, picking up kids, nursing a cold, getting a haircut, or going to an exercise class, we love to see it, and we applaud it. 
    • Having a dedicated space for keeping track of who is in “the office” means our team doesn’t need to ask permission every time they need to step away. PTO requests are only required for more than one day off at a time. 
    • Our #ooo channel also serves as a great accountability tool. When someone says they’re sick so they may be slow to respond, it’s a great opportunity to respond with a loving “get offline and take care of yourself!” message — and to remind them to sign off if you see them on Slack again soon.
  1. Meeting-free time. We all know the feeling of exasperation that comes from having so many meetings you can’t actually get any work done. And the inevitable exhaustion that comes from working overtime to compensate for all that time spent in conference rooms or on Zoom. To break away from this pattern, we put restraints on when we meet, leaving more time out of meetings than in them.
    • Internal meetings must take place on Mondays and Tuesdays (unless all required participants agree to meet a different day). Wednesdays and Thursdays are meeting-free. 
    • Meetings take place at a reasonable time for folks across time zones. We try to avoid meetings before 10 am PT and after 3:30 pm ET.
    • The last week of the month is meeting-free week, which gives everyone a full week of uninterrupted time to focus on their own work.
    • During meeting-free days/weeks, folks are welcome to schedule external meetings with sources/partners/funders/etc., but they can’t obligate other team members to be present.
    • But it doesn’t mean we don’t talk to our remote colleagues during these times! We jump on impromptu Slack huddles when people need to have a quick chat or group discussion.
  1. Flexible hours (and a 32 hour work week). When we were first figuring out how to structure our workplace, we quickly learned that — surprise, surprise! — everyone had a different preference. Some people wanted to work Fridays, some didn’t. Some wanted structured work hours, some wanted to work whenever it was best for them. So we met in the middle. 
    • Rather than sticking to a four-day work week, we maintain a 32-hour work week. No one is required to work on Fridays, and therefore no one can be expected/obligated to respond to questions, turn in work, or meet Friday deadlines. But if you want to work fewer hours in a day or do better with a consistent schedule throughout the week, you’re more than welcome to work to do your hours.
    • Outside of core meeting times, people can work whenever they want. Night owls can burn the midnight oil, parents can pick their kids up from school, earlier risers can feel the satisfaction of productive mornings. 
    • Communication is key. Reporters, editors need to know when you’re going to turn in drafts and editors, reporters need to know when you’re going to get edits back to them. People need to know when you’re going to be available. So everyone must communicate their general rhythm and use the #ooo channel regularly.
    • Trust your people to get their work done. On what we’ve found to be the rare occasion that this isn’t happening, have a conversation about what needs to change to make sure deadlines are met and other people aren’t left picking up their work. 
  1. Flexible Time Off. Unlimited time off has earned a bad rap because it’s often used to dissuade people from taking time off or shame them for going on vacation. But timesheets are a logistical/administrative nightmare and also feel a whole lot like micromanagement. Flexible time off lives in the middle of these two not-quite-right policies. 
    • Flexible time off functions a lot like unlimited time off, but allows us to set some expectations around how much to take at a time + when.
    • We require everyone to take at least 3 weeks off a year. As a leadership team, we model this by prioritizing our own time off. We also keep an eye on whether folks have taken a break. We’ve even gone so far as to nudge them out of the office if they’re overdue for a vacation.
    • But there are rules:
      • You can only take 3 consecutive weeks of Flexible Time Off at a time
      • You can’t, ordinarily, go piggybacking it onto collective rest or things like paid family leave. 
      • You must apply at least 5 days in advance. Our approach is that a person in leadership essentially rubberstamps time off unless a similar staff member also has a large amount of time off planned that would cause workflow problems.

This list may seem overwhelming or feel unachievable. Don’t worry, we’ve anticipated some questions you might have.

  • What about small newsrooms? We don’t have a gigantic budget! Almost every suggestion in this list is free to execute — all you need is a commitment to making them work and a team/leadership willing to do the upfront legwork to building the infrastructure needed to support these practices. In fact, one of the least popular policies — Flexible Time Off — is actually cheaper than accounting for traditional time off (though, you have to make sure staff take it otherwise you risk it being seen solely as a penny pinching solution).
  • So, if we do these things, no one will get burnt out? We wish! But we’re not miracle workers. These practices are intended to prevent systemically unhealthy and unsustainable practices in newsrooms that cause or worsen journalists’ burnout. But even the best of workplace conditions can’t prevent the impacts of covering difficult news stories, industry instability (financial security, constant layoffs elsewhere, etc), and an individual’s personal stress factors from leading to burnout. Burnout happens to the best of us, but there is a lot newsrooms can do to change the ways they contribute to or handle it.  
  • If we can’t prevent burnout, why does this matter? Firstly, because people matter. These practices build a culture of flexibility and community care for one another, and  allow space and support for when life happens. But if you need some answers to convince a more senior boss:
    • Our journalists produce better journalism (by any measure — impact, page views, etc.) when they’re not burnt out.
    • We have unusually low turnover, especially for a newsroom that started out with less than 10 people and $0. We’ve only had 1 person leave in 2.5 years and that was to go to grad school.
      • Important note for bosses: This saves us a substantial amount of money on hiring and training, and prevents the loss of institutional knowledge.

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